Finally, the day has arrived when gym-goers can return to their temple. But to borrow the words of Queer Eye’s ever body-positive Jonathan Van Ness, just because we Ameri-CAN do something, does it mean we Ameri-SHOULD?
Much like restaurants reopening earlier this month, critics argue that spending time indoors in close contact with strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea right now. And gyms come with the added sweat. And a lot of touching stuff.
Guidelines have been issued by the government that culture secretary Oliver Dowden says will ensure gyms can reopen safely. “Our comprehensive guidance will ensure gyms, pools and leisure centres have the support they need to reopen safely for their customers and staff,” he said.
The guidance instructs staff to conduct site-specific risk assessments around “the number of customers that can reasonably follow social distancing”.
Users should be told to arrive ready in their gym-kit, to use anti-bacterial spray to clean equipment after exercising and not to use shower facilities unless they have to – for instance because of a disability. Gym-goers should also be instructed to maintain social distancing at all times.
Even the pumping dance music you’re used to will be turned down low so people don’t have to shout at one another – as with the science of banning singing at post-lockdown weddings, this could cause more droplets containing Covid-19 to enter the air from anyone who is infected but asymptomatic.
Despite precautions, the fact remains that gyms – much like restaurants – are non-essential right now. And guidance doesn’t require users to wear face coverings, despite the fact that they are required in most other indoor environments like in shops and on public transport.
Worryingly, a study published last year revealed that 25% of surfaces in four different types of athletic training facilities carried drug-resistant bacteria, such as the flu virus and other pathogens. Gym owners have responded to safety concerns by arguing that far less essential venues were allowed to open first, such as pubs – labelling the situation a ‘war on obesity’.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to return to your local gym, these are some of the questions you may be pondering – we’ll try to answer them.
1) Can you exercise wearing a face mask?
Oliver Dowden said the government has “not taken a decision to require the wearing of face masks in respect of gyms.” Other measures have been put in place to assure safety of users, he said, such as social distancing and limiting the number of people allowed in the gym at any one time.
With gym equipment spread out to allow social distancing, and some gyms employing perspex screens to distance people further, the government insist that gyms are safe to use without face coverings.
There are legitimate fears that exercising with face coverings is unhealthy: for instance, a man in China experienced lung collapse after jogging wearing a face covering back in May.
Mask naysayers claim masks aren’t scientifically proven to stop the spreading of the virus anyway – although there is a broad weight of evidence which suggests wearing a mask is likely to make everyone much safer.
Many gym chains including the Pure Gym chain have confirmed they will not be asking users to wear masks. However each gym operates its own safety policies at its own discretion – so check with your local gym about their mask policy before attending.
2) Won’t the gym be really busy?
According to many European countries such as Switzerland which have already reopened gyms, there’s been a trend for users arriving at more spread out times throughout the day and night due to the new culture of working from home.
So there’s potentially less of a ‘rush hour’ that we’re used to at the gym before and after work and at weekends, at least this summer – as more of us have the flexibility to go during the work day.
That said, it’s still probably a good idea to go at a time that isn’t traditionally thought of as a peak hour – such as the mid afternoon, mid morning or later at night to doubly ensure the gym isn’t busy.
Gyms have also been instructed to limit capacity of users at any one time – but if you can choose a quieter time when you’re only sharing the space with a couple of other people, you’ll be doing your bit to keep the R-rate down – and you’ll not have to queue for the cross-trainer either. Bonus.
3) Should we go now, or wait a while?
Not rushing to your local gym on what could be a busy opening weekend may allow your local branch to iron out any creases when it comes to new social distancing and hygiene policies – once users have started testing equipment.
Spikes of the coronavirus can take two weeks to appear, so we won’t know if the reopening of gyms leads to any rise in cases of Covid-19 for at least a fortnight.
There hasn’t yet been a noticeable spike in the UK following restaurants, pubs and non-essential shops reopening – gyms may be be able to manage visitors safely, with the infection rate now suitably low. But it’s important to remember each of these reopening measures is unprecedented.
In April, China were forced to close down gyms again following a second wave of the virus after they had reopened initially – although the second wave was caused by a broader set of triggers than just gyms. There is no robust scientific evidence to tell us whether or not gyms reopening could further the spread of the virus, so it could be worth erring on the side of caution.
4) Will some equipment be riskier to use?
Experts say dumbbells and kettle bells are particularly difficult to clean, and in general they advise to watch out for materials made in unusual shapes and sizes that can attract germs in orifices.
It’s also worth remembering not to touch parts of the gym that staffers may not think to prioritise cleaning for, such as walls, ledges and lower and higher-hanging furnishings out of easy reach.
Alongside the enforced rules mentioned above, hand sanitising stations should also be expected throughout gyms, alongside plenty of anti-bacterial spray. Do your bit and use them, profusely!
5) What if my gym doesn’t follow guidelines?
If gyms fail to provide any or all of these precautions, they are in direct breach of government advice and are putting your safety at risk.
Report inaction straight away to your gym formally and await a response before considering whether to return to the gym.
Also bear in mind that gyms have different approaches to safety precautions, so it might be worth reading around to work out which gym makes you feel most comfortable.
Here are the safety guidelines pages for Pure Gym, Nuffield Health, Fitness First, Better, Equinox and Gymbox. If you’re a member of an independent gym, check its website or email updates for specific details.
6) Wouldn’t I be better off exercising outside?
In a word, yes. Science suggests the virus spreads faster indoors, one of the reasons why there are fears about a second wave in autumn and winter.
With so many available ways to exercise outdoors from an archive of YouTube sessions with Joe Wicks (for a dose of deep lockdown nostalgia) to apps like Couch to 5K and the simple value of a humble but brisk walk, there’s a good case for not heading back to the gym.
The warning tape has been pulled off the outdoor gyms in parks now – and while you’ll have to be careful about hygiene measures there too, they could be more appealing right now than a basement with no windows or fresh air.
7) But what if I just really miss the gym?
Many UK gym goers have shared how much they have missed the gym under lockdown. Yes, there has been a rise in home workouts, and outdoor exercising, but fitness fans say working out alone lacks that all-important culture of going to the gym.
In the same way that the pub provides a community, gyms also do – and the value of that cannot be disputed or underplayed.
Ultimately it’s down to individuals as to whether or not they feel safe to go back, but if you feel your mental health is being compromised by not returning to your gym, and you trust management to comply with the new rules, follow your instinct and head back for a workout. And to put your mind at rest, read the government guidelines before you go so there’s no margin for error.